Movie Review ~ Decision to Leave

The Facts:

Synopsis: A businessman plummets to his death from a mountain peak in South Korea. Did he jump, or was he pushed? When detective Hae-joon arrives on the scene, he begins to suspect the dead man’s wife, Seo-rae, may know more than she initially lets on.
Stars: Tang Wei, Park Hae-il
Director: Park Chan-wook
Rated: R
Running Length: 138 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  While I take my role as a critic seriously, I pride myself on not being too much of a creaky contrarian who deliberately goes against the majority vote. I’ll let you in on another little secret of this inner world of reviewing movies: it can make for a chilly time on the playground if you are a voice of dissent for a film that’s soared to popularity among the masses. While writing this blog, I’ve experienced that frost a few times, but I’m usually the one who likes the movies everyone wants to toss in the bin, so it’s not so bad. As we make our way to the end of 2022, there’s a much-lauded title I’ve put off discussing that needs to be addressed so I can close the book on it. 

The film is the South Korean mystery Decision to Leave by celebrated director Park Chan-wook, who will forever be linked to the brutal brilliance of Oldboy and, more recently, the striking beauty of The Handmaiden. Decision to Leave won the directing prize at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and is already favored as the frontrunner for Best International Feature at the Oscars, with Park Chan-wook also high on the list to receive his first nomination for Best Director. With all that buzz coming out of Cannes and many good reviews laid down as a golden carpet, why wouldn’t I sit down to this expecting it to knock my socks off?

The thing is, it didn’t. And it’s not just due to overhype or ‘festival fever’ that can affect movies seen by a limited number of reviewers that get their hooks into one film and proclaim it the next big thing. No, for me, Decision to Leave was a miss in the narrative storytelling Park Chan-wook has excelled at in the past. Never known for completely linear storytelling, the director employs some of those same time jolts here. Still, it’s to the detriment and forward motion of his overly serpentine mystery and characters that should be far more intriguing than they ever are. The moment they start to show subterfuge, Park Chan-wook jostles us again somehow, and the snow globe-fragile structure of the piece has to find time to settle.

Detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is stretched thin between commuting to work and rarely seeing his wife due to their competing schedules. Any time they get to work on their relationship is put to the side when Hae-joon takes on a case of suspicious death where the wife of a retired immigration officer becomes the main suspect. The man is found dead at the bottom of a mountain, which could be a mere accident, but as Hae-joon and his partner Soo-Wan (Go Kyung-Pyo) dig deeper under the surface, they discover widow Seo Rae (Tang Wei) may have committed the perfect crime. How to prove it, though? And did the deceased have it coming to him?

The basic outline I’m giving you is a tiny tip of an iceberg plot that viewers will crash into repeatedly before the film lumbers to its conclusion after nearly two and a half hours. Admittedly, the plot developments have a Hitchcock flair, but they come at a hefty price: time. Hitchcock knew how to keep the viewer engaged, and I kept getting further detached from every character the filmmakers wanted us to be more interested in. Despite some inarguably breathtaking work by Tang Wei as a possible femme fatale that houses a multitude of oceanic currents under her calm demeanor, I struggled to find a reason to care much about anything.

In many ways, the same negatives that weighed down Christopher Nolan’s 2020 Tenet sank Decision to Leave. Both arrive from directors that have delivered some unforgettable films in the past but have let their love of the process overtake their understanding of the viewer’s experience. I didn’t just find Decision to Leave slack. I found it hard to track. No, I don’t need my hand held, but I need to understand what I’m supposed to be looking for in the first place. 

31 Days to Scare ~ A Double Shot of Crawford

Two films starring Joan Crawford that I had never seen had been calling to me for a while, and I was having trouble deciding which ones to watch for 31 Days to Scare. Ultimately, both were so short and interesting that I decided to bundle them for A Double Shot of Crawford. If Crawford is the true star of Berserk, she was more of a cameo in I Saw What You Did, but both show off her tremendous screen presence. 

Berserk (1969)
The Facts:

Synopsis: A scheming circus owner finds her authority challenged when a vicious killer targets the show.
Stars: Joan Crawford, Ty Hardin, Diana Dors, Michael Gough, Judy Geeson, Robert Hardy
Director: Jim O’Connolly
Rated: Approved
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review:  After a long and celebrated career of almost 45 years and nearly 80 films, Joan Crawford’s work in the movies was struggling in the late ‘60s.  She would find the occasional job here and there, but rumors of her being difficult to work with had proceeded her, often proven true by the actress’s noted drinking problems late in life.  Her work with William Castle on 1964’s Strait-Jacket and 1965’s I Saw What You Did bolstered her into the B-movie horror genre after starring in the A-List suspense thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962.  By the time 1969’s Berserk pulled up, Crawford was done with the American film business and was looking to the European market.

A British film production, Berserk is almost a double-bill film in and of itself.  It serves as a fine suspense thriller with Crawford well cast (and well-lit), and it also features several circus acts, bringing horror and spectacle together into one package.  Your thoughts on the circus and its use of animals aside, it is fascinating to see the traveling entertainment all these years later to view some of its inner workings and oddities.  While the fully performed circus routines tend to pad the feature (full disclosure, I fast-forwarded through many of them after a few minutes), I can see how their presence would add a selling point to those wanting an extended peek into the tent.

At its heart, Berserk is a murder-mystery whodunit and not a bad one at that.  Someone starts to trim the roster of performers and staff of Crawford’s traveling circus, and it’s up to the dwindling members to find out who could be behind it all.  A shocking opening finds a tightrope walker strangled by his rope, which also cleverly (or would it be cheekily?) reveals the title as shocked spectators look on.  Unbothered by this terrible death, ringmistress Monica Rivers (Crawford) asks her business partner Albert Dorando (Michael Gough, Venom) to locate a new act immediately.  Lucky for them, Frank Hawkins (Ty Hardin), another tightrope walker with an added element of danger, has shown up looking for a job.  He fits the bill, is ruggedly handsome, and instantly has eyes for single-mother Monica, so he’s hired.  Their affair begins quickly, and soon, he wants to be taken on as part of the business.

When more people start to die, usually any that stand in the way of Monica or Frank getting what they want, the performers team up and begin to put the pieces together that perhaps it’s Monica behind the killings.  This scene was a fun turning point of the movie, when the “freaks” get back at their master and, led into battle by the voluptuous Diana Dors; it’s when the film loosens its collar a bit and settles into having some fun with its cattiness.  Dors and Crawford have some nice run-ins, and as the bodies pile up, more people arrive on the scene that may be helping or hindering the process.  One of these is Detective Superintendent Brooks (Robert Hardy, Dark Places), sent to help the circus pinpoint its killer in disguise, and Angela Rivers (Judy Geeson, Lords of Salem), Monica’s estranged daughter stops by after getting kicked out of boarding school.

If there’s one place where the movie falters, it’s in a finale that’s a bit ludicrous even by the standard of these trashy-but-fun films.  There’s a sense of not knowing how to wrap things up, so writers Herman Cohen and Aben Kandel chose the ending that shocks the most, even if it creates a multi-verse of plot holes.  Up until that point, apart from the slightly slow circus acts, the genre pieces of Berserk had been quite fun to get a front-row seat for.  For nothing else, it’s lovely to see Crawford looking glamorous and in complete control of the movie.  As mentioned before, she’s rarely seen without a particular key light across her face, and it almost becomes comical by the end to have that same light on her no matter where she is or what time of day the scene takes place. 

I Saw What You Did (1965)
The Facts:

Synopsis: Teenagers Libby and Kit innocently spend an evening making random prank calls that lead to murderous consequences.
Stars: Joan Crawford, Andi Garrett, Sarah Lane, Sharyl Locke, John Ireland, Leif Erickson, Patricia Breslin, Joyce Meadows
Director: William Castle
Rated: Approved
Running Length: 82 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  In the horror genre, the name William Castle often goes hand in hand with a particular type of schlock B-movie cinema. While he initially began as a standard director of lower-grade films that studios could use to fill out double bills, he eventually turned his talent at marketing a movie with gimmicks and ploys from advanced advertising into a small cottage industry. Often the advanced buzz on a film was more interesting than the film itself. This is the guy that had a “fright break” in his 1961 film Homicidal that allowed guests to run out of the theater if they were too scared to stay for the end. I’ve watched that film, and while it isn’t particularly frightening, the 60-second countdown in the “fright-break” as a woman slowly walks toward a door to open creates a nerve frenzy that’s had to ignore.

By the time I Saw What You Did came about in 1965, Castle had also released 1959’s The Tingler, with vibrating devices installed in seats to give audiences a buzz whenever the titular creature had shown up. His idea around I Saw What You Did was to have seat belts installed in seats to prevent the viewer from leaping out due to fright. Maybe not on par with his previous stunts, but it still comes across as if you might want to proceed with caution if you consider buying a ticket. I find all these quite fun, but you can also understand why these campaigns went by the wayside. Not only were they hard to maintain as movie theaters across the country grew, but it also indicated the film needed a trick to entice audiences when the movie itself should be the draw.

At least with Castle, most of his films were easy to recommend. I’m always surprised at how nicely put together his movies are, and I Saw What You Did is no exception. Opening with such a spring in its step that you may wonder if you’ve started into a teeny-bopper comedy, we get introduced to Libby Mannering (Andi Garrett) and Kit Austin (Sara Lane). They plan a night in at Libby’s house while her parents are away overnight. They’ll be a babysitter because Libby’s younger sister Tess (Sharyl Locke) has been ill, so Kit’s dad agrees that she can hang out at Libby’s isolated home on the outskirts of town.

When Kit arrives, and her dad has gone, the babysitter cancels, leaving Libby’s parents to make a last-minute decision to allow their teen daughter to have some adult responsibility. Libby can be in charge if they stay in the house and don’t go out. No sooner have they left than the teens, bored after Libby shows Kit around their expansive home and outdoor barn, start playing a fun telephone game. They flip through a phone book, pick a random name, and call the number, pranking whoever answers with silly questions or their favorite line: “I saw what you did, and I know who you are.” A call to Steve Marak (John Ireland) will turn their crank calling into a nightmare.

They first get Marak’s wife on the phone, and with the girls posing as a sultry woman, she confronts her husband, who is already in an aggravated state. Things get dicey from there, with Marak killing his wife and burying her body, only to receive another call from the giggly girls saying: “I saw what you did, and I know who you are.” Convinced there is a witness to his crime through a series of coincidences that involve Marak’s lusty neighbor (Joan Crawford), Marak identifies the address where the girls are calling from and makes a late-night beeline to them.

I went into I Saw What You Did, thinking it would be much different than it turned out. Maintaining a natural feeling of pep and capturing that teen spirit in the first half, the transition makes sense when it turns dark in the second, and we start to fear for the girl’s safety. There’s a lot of teen slang that makes for fun laughs, and Crawford is a campy treat as the nosy neighbor who can’t see she’s making eyes at a dangerous killer.

The film’s finale is quite scary, with Castle adding ample amounts of fog to his studio set and creating a sense of dread by doing very little. Films of this era often drew suspense from the editing, and Edwin H. Bryant cuts I Saw What You Did with efficient skill. It’s a full 82-minutes that rarely sags because of the performances (the two teens are terrific, as is the youngster playing the ill sister) and Castle’s eye for crafting visuals that give you the shivers is on target. That’s the kind of filmmaking that needs no trickery to promote.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A timid typesetter hasn’t a ghost of a chance of becoming a reporter – until he decides to solve a murder mystery and ends up spending a fright-filled night in a haunted house.
Stars: Don Knotts, Joan Staley, Liam Redmond, Skip Homeier, Dick Sargent, Reta Shaw, Lurene Tuttle, Philip Ober
Director: Alan Rafkin
Rated: G
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Growing up, from an early age, I can remember The Andy Griffith Show being on constantly in the background. Both my parents had been kids when it originally aired, and it brought them the warm nostalgia that led their generation to create Nick at Nite, beaming reruns out to the early adopters of cable television. As a second-generation consumer of the show, the homespun lessons and charm didn’t go unappreciated. Still, at the time, it was a roadblock to cartoons or more “serious” shows like The Incredible Hulk and The Six-Million Dollar Man. I do know that I learned to whistle by way of its famous theme song.

The absolute breakout star of that lauded series was Don Knotts, and after winning five Primetime Emmy Awards for his role as lovable Deputy Barney Fife, he left the series for greener pastures in 1966. By greener, I meant a higher-paying career in the movies. After the success of 1964’s The Incredible Mr. Limpet, Knotts was encouraged to try on the role of leading man, and his first project after departing the safety of his long-tenured job was The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. This film, drafted by two writers from The Andy Griffith Show by request of Knotts himself, was tailor-made for the actor, playing to his strengths and expanding on the charisma that had so endeared him to audiences until that point.

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is one movie that sticks out like a beacon in my brain, as it was frequently rebroadcasted during my childhood. Revisiting it recently reminded me how effortlessly watchable it is, maintaining a light-hearted spring in its step throughout. It may suggest scares in its title, and true, there is a mystery to uncover, but it’s of the Scooby-Doo variety and akin to a big-screen adventure of Barney Fife had he moved out of Mayberry and set up shop in a new town.   

Knotts plays Luther Heggs from Rachel, Kansas, who dreams of becoming a reporter for the Rachel Courier Express. Toiling away as a typesetter, he’s ignored by editor George Beckett (Dick Sargent, aka Darren #2 on Bewitched) and teased by star reporter Ollie Weaver (Skip Homeier). Ollie also happens to be dating Alma Parker (Joan Staley), a beauty that the nervous Luther has long pined for. Luther gets an opportunity to pen a big-time story when a puff piece he writes on an infamous mansion, the site of a murder-suicide years before, becomes the talk of the town. 

When his editor assigns him to spend the night in the supposedly haunted house on the anniversary of the tragic event and then report back on his spooky stay, Luther takes it as a sign that he might finally get the job of his dreams…and perhaps the girl (Alma) of them too. When the night arrives, the creepy house reveals several secrets that send the town into a tizzy, making Luther a local hero but the target of its owner, who is now unable to sell the house because of its possessed state. Can Luther stop his knees shaking long enough to prove in a court of law that the house is haunted? And is it haunted, or is something else mysterious at play?

There is something soothing about watching movies like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Filmed on the backlot of Universal Studios in Hollywood, you’ll be able to spot several locations that have shown up in many movies over the years. You’ll also pick out the faces of familiar supporting players from film and TV, and I liked knowing that they all drove in every morning, parked their cars, ate lunch together, and made this spirited film. It’s nothing mind-blowing in terms of story, effects, acting, or directing (though I will say the oft-repeated music cues burrow into your brain), but what shows is professionalism at its most efficient. Knotts is a riot and could have likely acted in the film alone, and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken would have been nearly as entertaining. The ensemble, especially a host of old ladies playing members of Luther’s boarding house or busybodies, is often a hoot.

I’ve offered several films so far this season that might be too much to handle for those who don’t find horror their bag. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is that horror-lite selection you can choose if you want to say you watched a horror movie this year without giving yourself a nightmare while you do it. I think you’ll find this one as entertaining as I did.

Down From the Shelf ~ Murder By Death

The Facts:

Synopsis: Five famous literary detective characters and their sidekicks are invited to a bizarre mansion to solve an even stranger mystery.

Stars: Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Maggie Smith, Truman Capote, Eileen Brennan, Nancy Walker, Peter Sellers

Director: Robert Moore

Rated: PG

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:   A totally delightful comedy/murder-mystery penned by Neil Simon , Murder By Death is one of those films you just know is going to be a good ride from the credits sequence onward.  In 1976 the stars of the film were top of the line comedic actors perfectly cast as send ups of popular detectives throughout the history of the printed word.  It’s not too hard to figure out who they are all supposed to represent but hard to forget their performances when you are watching the characters that they were inspired by.

To single any of them out is difficult as each star has their moment to shine.  If I have to call out any performances I would have to say that Sellers has both the riskiest and funniest role.  Playing a variation on Charlie Chan, Sellers was probably the only actor alive at the time that could pull off playing an Asian character without being run out of Tinsel Town.  That he plays it without veering into racist territory is a marvel to behold.  Guinness and Walker are a riot as a blind butler and deaf/mute maid as are Niven and Smith as a sleuthing couple ala Nick and Nora (with their names being Dick and Dora). Capote was an inspired and gleefully bizarre choice to play the gleefully bizarre millionaire that calls all of these sleuths together to solve the ultimate game of Who Dun It?

Simon’s brilliant script deserved at least an Oscar nod (as did Sellers) for the way he blended so many genres and juggled so many plot points without ever losing focus.  The ending explanation alone just builds and builds to a head shaker of an ending.   The best part about the movie is that it holds up the more you think about it.  It’s a twisted web that Simon has weaved but you’ll enjoy getting caught by these spiders.